Mean Ladies to Read About
by Carrie Hill Wilner
Ohhh. . . hi, Hairpin. I didn’t recognize you for a sec, you look kind of tired! Yes, we should tooootally catch up. . . uh, my phone’s out of. . . power? but you should. . . find me on Facebook? Okayyy, gotta go meet some people for a drink. I’d ask you to come, but I don’t think you’d like it there, it’s kind of fancy. You know.
Wasn’t I being kind of bitchy? It was totally didactic and not at all real, I’d never treat anyone so uncharitably in real life. Because I’m perceptive and empathetic, I understand that I’m unusual in this way, and that most of you are probably lustful and scheming on a good day. That’s great! I practice radical acceptance and am able to love you for who you are. To love you so much, in fact, that I wrote this just for you, so you wouldn’t feel so lonely. You see, I was gunning up to talk to you about Jane Austen and Persuasion. And there was Anne Eliot, and I realized maybe some of you just couldn’t fucking TAKE one more heroine who was just a little bit too sensitive and clever and independent for her time and constrained social circle AND BRING ON THE VENAL, UNEXCEPTIONAL JACKAL WOMEN, AND WE WILL EAT THE BONES OF LIZZIE BENNET (sorry Lizzie omg I’m so sorry I don’t mean it).* You know. Some of you.
But problem! It’s harder to find a good leading silly bitch in canonical Anglo-American literature from before WWI-ish than you’d guess!** Once you open it up to other languages, the silly bitches are all over the place, jumping in front of trains and going to the opera, but EnglAmerica has a serious Special Girl hangup. You know the Special Girl. OF COURSE secretly you think you’re lovely and timeless and misunderstood just like her, and that Mr. Darcy/Dumbledore whatever will someday recognize your luminous soul (*wistful gaze over moor*), but at the same time, if you tried to have a drink with her, you’d be texting your actual friends to emergency rescue you before the frost had evaporated from the outside of your martini. And then your actual friends would meet up with you, ask you to spot them like 20, or 50, or, you know, whatever, make out with the guy you thought was looking at you, talk about their boring job, and smush your lipstick when they put the top back on. And at the end of the night you’d have a teary conversation like, “I love you guys soooooo much I just want you and that bar guy to be happy with your accidental baby that you probably made in the men’s restroom.” Well, good on you Hairpin, I found you three great silly bitches to have mind-cocktails with while you wait for that luminous soul thing to work out.
(1) Who is that bitch?
(a) There’s no point even talking about great books about great bitches if we’re not going to talk about Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. First of all, Vanity Fair is the second best book in the entire world. Second of all, Becky Becky BECKY! Totally scrappy, shockingly contemporary, she’s a social climber like whoa, but she also kind of fucks up social climbing, and she’s hilarious and she’s terrible to her best friend but still sort of loves her, in a medium way.
(b) Lily Bart, from The House of Mirth, isn’t quite a *bitch* like Becky or our next bitch in that there’s not a whole lot of meanness there. She’s kind of silly and unreflective and just somehow keeps on ending up in private with people’s husbands who want to do her, but doesn’t quite get why? Oh, OK, yeah, sure, person’s husband, I could definitely use some money wait you want to WHAT?
(c) Kate Croy, The Wings of the Dove. She’s the closest we’re coming to a genuine sociopath, but we don’t care because her clothes are amaaazing and she will let us borrow them in return for a chance to murder us no I mean just wait for us to die, totally unmurdered. Sounds good, I call the pleated midnight blue top!
(2) Is that bitch prettier than you?
Becky: Pretty, for sure, but she also just works it, hard. If you, too, are willing to cinch your belt an extra notch, stick chicken cutlets in your bra, and bat your lashes like you’re powering a wind turbine, you could probably clean up right alongside her. No open-toed shoes, she’ll step on you.
Lily: Prettier than you and kind of dreamy-seeming, so all prospects will think she’s a Special Girl when you know that that’s you! Because you can’t be a Special Girl and the pretty one! HAVEN’T THEY READ ANYTHING? Everyone’s so shallow!
Kate: Also the prettiest, but she’s eager to help you out with your hair and makeup and picking good places to go, because that way she can trick you into marrying her secret fiancé and get your your money when you die. What? No, no, she just said you should try something off-the-shoulder, your collarbones are great! With a little bit of shimmer riiight here. . .
(3) Is that bitch trying to steal your boyfriend?
Becky: Probably, but she doesn’t want to keep him. So, you know, what’s your problem?
Lily: Lily never tries to do anything.
Kate: Stealing your boyfriend is 19 levels of psycho less than anything Kate would ever even bother with.
(4) Will that bitch lighten up already?
Becky: Becky likes a party well enough, but she’s always looking around the room for someone better to talk to. Isn’t that why you go to parties anyway? What, I didn’t hear what you just said, why don’t you go get us a round? I want to just check. . . something out over here.
Lily: Lily’s probably a lot of fun, actually! She has lots of good bad habits that are actually bad habits and then really bad habits, but you know that thrilling moment when you’re trying to decide whether to actually try crack and thereby become someone who’s tried crack, and everything’s in total gorgeous equipoise? No? Well, Lily does.
Kate: Kate knows everyone and takes you great places, but tends to hold back herself. Isn’t that just so nice of her? Don’t you wish there were something really great you could do to thank her?
(5) Does that bitch get shit done?
Becky: Here’s why Becky is my favorite — her scheming reaches world-historical proportions when she profits on selling her carriage to English people fleeing Belgium during the Napoleonic wars. It’s kind of nice that her over-fuckery extends to the entire world and not just other individual women. It’s somehow one of her most appealing moments.
Lily: Lily has a pretty endearing hat-selling phase during which she displays a surprising tough/proud streak, but “gets shit done” only for for the value of “shit done” = ”hats sold.”
Kate: Kate’s so damaged and weird that her shrewdness really does seem sick, and not kind of sassy like Becky’s. The people closest to her are either equally twisted or eventually repulsed, so while her plan *technically* works out, she pays in a way that really guts her, and somehow you. (This is in contrast to Becky, who is Punished Like a Bad Person, but you’re just like, whatever 19th century, stop playin’, you know and I know she’s secretly President of the Universe.)
So, yeah. It was really great to run into you? Good luck with uh, your thing or whatever.
*Duh, Jane Austen knew better than this and had more love for the Jackal Women than you’d know from, oh, say, the many, many miniseries (Lydia Bennet best character eeeeevvvvvrrrrrr!!!!!!), but you still have to talk about the Special Girls even if they’re actually complicated Special Girls and I can’t do it anymore. I can’t.
**Lots of awesome supporting bitches though. Edith Dombey!!! If you guys skipped Dombey and Son because you thought it was too long or “Oh, I don’t like Dickens,” seriously, you’re out of the book club, you aren’t allowed to read the rest of this stop right now and unread what you already saw. Also, why pre-WWI? It’s my secret rule that I don’t have to explain but that has really good reasons I promise.
Previously: Room With a View vs. Where Angels Fear to Tread.
Carrie Hill Wilner loves to read.
Illustration by Mortimer Lebigre.